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Transport / NorthLink ferries to be restricted to ‘essential’ travel only

Photo: NorthLink Ferries

NORTHLINK Ferries will no longer take “non-essential” travellers following concern over people heading to the Highlands and Islands in an attempt to “avoid coronavirus”.

Scottish transport secretary Michael Matheson confirmed the move on Sunday (22 March), with CalMac on the west coast also affected.

There have been reports of people with second homes and campervans travelling to the Highlands recently.

He said: “With immediate effect ferry companies will no longer take non-essential travellers.

“From now on ferries will be for those who live on our islands, who have an essential need to travel to or from the mainland and for essential supplies or business. Nothing else.

“Those who do not normally live on the islands and have traveled there in the last few days will be able to leave to reduce pressure.”

NorthLink said all bookings are now suspended, with “anyone seeking to travel and complying with the criteria for travel will be asked to comply with these requirements and book at the port of departure”.

“Those with existing bookings may be able to travel but customers will be informed that we will decline travel for recreational or social purposes,” it added.

“Customers are advised that bookings should be for essential travel only and if travelling to the islands that we cannot guarantee return travel. Special arrangements will apply to key workers and further advice will become available later Monday 23rd March.”

First minister Nicola Sturgeon meanwhile said on Sunday that “you risk taking it [coronavirus] to the places you go”.

“In remote and rural communities that means extra pressure on health services that are already more distant from people.”

Rural economy and tourism secretary Fergus Ewing said on Saturday that he was “furious at the reckless and irresponsible behaviour of some people travelling to the Highland and Islands”.

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“Let me be crystal clear, people should not be travelling to rural and island communities full stop,” he added. “They are endangering lives.”

NorthLink – which is operated by Serco on behalf of the Scottish Government – says that anyone exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19 should not be travelling, while it has also installed extra hand sanitation points.

The company connects Shetland with Aberdeen and Kirkwall, while it also runs a service between Scrabster and Stromness.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said: “It’s vital that lifeline ferry services are kept running to support island business and essential travel and that crew are not exposed to unacceptable risks.

“This is a necessary and sensible measure to help protect islanders, island health services and those crew members.

“Whilst Shetland is very welcoming to tourists, this is not the time to visit the isles. I cannot stress that enough.”

Unst, meanwhile, featured in a guide in Saturday’s Daily Mail of rural places in Britain to isolate in during the outbreak.

Shetland, however, has had the highest number of confirmed cases in relation to population when it comes to Scotland’s health board areas.

Chairman of Shetland Islands Council’s environment and transport committee Ryan Thomson said the travel restriction is not in place on the inter-island ferries.

“Although as the situation develops we will change and review all procedures as and when required,” he said.

Shetland’s inter-island flights, however, are only currently taking bookings for islanders or people providing essential services.

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